Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you first get into design? What made you want to pursue it professionally?
I’m well into my fifties now, so I’ve been in quite a few different careers, but my art background started from the age of fifteen, I was into stop motion. I didn’t go to art college, I just went straight to work in a production studio. Then I moved on from that to work in the print department of a steelyard. So my career was aiming towards draughtsman.
It was analogue design. I was working on learning the print side of a business, ready to start working on the drawing board side of a business. That was the early eighties, so computers weren’t really a thing. There was nothing digital, even the printing equipment was analogue.
I slowly gravitated into more illustration and did more commercial graphics. Then I stepped out of the industry because I had bought a house very young. So I stepped out and did some business work, in retail. That gave me a good grounding in what I want to do. I learned a lot of life skills that led me back to this industry.
In 1991, I was introduced to 3D Studio Max. So I’ve been modelling and polygon-modelling since 1991. I knew very early on in my career that that’s what I wanted to do. Everything I’ve done since has just evolved with the software and my own development, which eventually led me to setting up my own company and digitally modelling and sculpting. The core skills are still important, but the design side of creation is what I have been passionate about for all of those years.
VR coming along is the culmination of a dream really. We wanted to design in a virtual world back then, so to be doing it now is literally a dream come true.
Being creative in your profession is something all designers aspire to do. Do you think having the life skills of being in other careers enabled you to set up a successful business?
Design is design, and business is business. Setting up a company is very different. It’s a whole different set of skills and different set of pressures. I know a lot of great designers who couldn’t run a business to save their life and wouldn’t want to. You have to make that choice for yourself.
It’s not easy to do all of the day-to-day stuff. You stop designing and you start managing and being a leader. I keep my company small and I go and work with other companies, so I still develop my skills along the way. The single most important thing is relationships – being able to talk to people and manage people. There’s no point in being the best designer in the world if you can’t communicate. Those life skills help you sell your ideas and sell your designs, and build the relationships that get you more work. One doesn’t work without the other.
How has the entertainment industry changed in general, particularly with technological innovation?
It’s a whole different world. Everything has an element of digital design now. Even if you’re doing analogue, it goes digital. If you’re a traditional painter, at some point, someone is gonna scan your work. If you’re a traditional modeler working with clay, someone is gonna scan your work.
If you look at games, when it started it was 8-bit. I was painting on a computer with 64 colours. Now it’s almost infinite (but not quite).
We do a lot of teaching, and the big thing I always insist is to have the basics down first. So if you’re going into digitally sculpting with Zbrush, the best people that I teach are those who can already sculpt in plasticine or clay. You can teach anybody to press the right buttons but they won’t produce the artwork that you need. It shows. The core skills of light, perspective, form, shape, are what matters. The digital stuff is secondary.
In VR, the best modelers are the ones who can already design. If you’re good with pen and paper, and you understand space on a 2D flat piece of paper, then you’re gonna be good in VR.
Animation has come along so far since Wallace and Gromit. Do you think that some of the old school skills have a place today in the entertainment industry?
Animation is animation, the digital part of it is irrelevant. I want someone who has dedicated their career to being an animator. I don’t really hire generalists. Quite often I don’t really care if it’s 2D or 3D. If they understand the core principles of animation (things like anatomy, how a body moves, squash and stretch), which haven’t changed since the early days, then they’re gonna be good in VR. If you just go in without understanding the basic rules of animation, then you’re starting from a very low base.
Just as when we moved into digital, you’ve got to learn the basics. It’s the message or the medium. The medium is irrelevant, the message is everything. If you’re an animator and you don’t understand how a creature moves, you’re not gonna do it well in VR, because you can’t do it. People sometimes forget that.
What would you think of a designer who shunned new ways of creating, like VR? Would you encourage them to stay on top of new technology?
I think you should always be aware of what’s coming. In product design, if your skill is with a pen and ink, and you’re the best at it, stick at it, you don’t need to branch out. But be aware of new technology, because the more you’re aware of, the more hireable you are. Companies like Autodesk are looking into tools we might be using in five years’ time. If you’re not aware of it you might be left behind.
I saw that in the late nineties with digital sculpting. Everybody thought that once digital sculpting with programmes like Zbursh and Mudbox got to the level where it was amazing, people started to say “it’s changing the industry, there will be no physical sculptors” and that just hasn’t happened. Look at companies like Merlin Entertainment, Madame Tussauds, any movie, there are still physical sculptors around. They still do an amazing job.
It’s hard to know where an industry is going to go, because things crop up from nowhere. The big thing with VR is that it’s immersive. It’s not just a new piece of software, it’s a new environment to work in. As a designer, if you’re in the room with your product that’s a game-changer. The quality of what you make might be no higher than what you would do on a screen or on paper, but the fact that you’re in the room with that product and you’re spatially aware of it, that’s a big change. I’m seeing it everyday now.
If some people say VR is “stuttering”, because of the cost of hardware, or it’s not ready yet, and this kind of language, I think “it will be ready soon.” Programmes like Gravity Sketch are now available on Oculus Quest, so there’s gonna be people on the tube designing on a CAD programme. It is science fiction, but it’s here and it’s now.
I’ve got a fifteen-year-old son coming through the design world now. What he sees as a design world is not gonna be the one that I’m showing him now. It’s the Wild West, but it’s really exciting.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My company does a lot of broadcast TV for companies like Sky. It’s high turnover of assets, and not the most creative because it’s a locked design.
But that isn’t what inspires me. I’m really inspired by nature. I’m a big diver, I dive internationally, and not for the diving, I do it for the creatures. Wherever I can I’m trying to find new creatures and trying to see new things that I haven’t seen underwater. We do a lot of organics and creatures and monsters, so taking inspiration from nature has got to be the way to do it. So if you’re gonna design anything with four legs, you better know what a horse looks like, what a dog looks like and how a dog runs and how a cat runs. What’s different in the bone structure between a dog and a cat.
My inspiration comes from other artists who do that kind of work, people like Terryl Whitlatch, like Scott Eaton. On TV, I look for science fiction, genetics, and natural history. Anything from that world inspires me.
Could you elaborate on what you look for when you look for people to join Southern GFX? How do you tell if someone is truly creative?
Our business is split into a few different arms, and one of them is training. I train Zbrush, Cinema4D, and Subdivision modelling. I teach anatomy at a lower level. I train at colleges, and we get some contracts where we can inspire very young kids down to 7 years old.
And I have a couple of “feeder colleges” where I teach a lot, and there’s a couple of universities where I teach masterclasses. And I’m there looking all the time for talent. So I try to spot people very, very young. I’ve spotted people at fourteen, and watched them through college, and coached them. Then we wait until they’ve finished college, and we ask if they want to come and do some work experience, or if they want to go to university and come and talk to us after that. The last six or seven employees have all come through that route. So we don’t put out that we have a job, we have a steady stream of people who are trained before they even get to us.
Outside of that route, the shining thing with all of my employees is that they already know how to talk to me and my team, they know what it’s like to work in a studio. And they have an amazing portfolio. The portfolio is king. They’ll obviously be qualified, but you’ve gotta shine above that.
Nobody gets an easy ride with us. You don’t always get the sexy jobs. You sometimes have to be making rocks and trees and things, before you get to the exciting stuff.
I go and find the people I want early, and I help them come and work for me. I’m not the norm. I’m lucky that I’ve got a lot of talent in the north-west of England. It’s a nice position for me to be in as an employer.
Design is very subjective. When you look for new employees, do you look for people who have a similar design style to you, or people who have a totally different style, to broaden your capabilities?
It depends. Commercially, you don’t always get a lot of scope to be the designer. Probably 90% of what we do is already designed. I’m a digital sculptor by trade, but there are very few times for a feature film, where I can do the concept. We’ve worked for Roal Dahl, and the designs are locked before we ever get them. We’ve worked for Tim Burton, things like Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, all those things are very designed before we even get to look at them.
What I look for is someone who can hit the ground running. A lot of what we look for is modelling skills; someone who has understood Subdivision modelling, someone who’s understood organic modelling, programmes like Zbrush, have they got a understanding of the core skillset? Can they emulate other people’s work? For modelling there are always stringent polygon counts.
For the big contracts, it might seem mundane to some people, but you have to know the rules. Because there might be thirty or forty people who are going to use those assets in a pipeline, so if you put an engon or a polygon that’s got more than four sides, you can make thousands of pounds worth of mistakes down the pipeline.
So I look for people with those skills already, but I do look for people with flare. I look for what’s different. People who have analogue skills, people who are good with paper and card and clay. I don’t have many concept designers, I use a lot of freelancers for that work. I can find a lot of that online, and then I can build a relationship with someone that way.
How do you think the entertainment industry will change over the next few years?
Story is still king. The things that are doing well right now are where there’s a character-driven narrative. The things that fail are when that fails. When you look at some of the high profile movies that have failed are where that fails. There’s not that many times where the visual effects is the problem, but it’s seen as a massive problem when the story doesn’t stand up. I won’t name any specific films, but you can think of many examples where you’ve got absolutely stunning aesthetics and the visuals are perfect, but you’re just bored because the narrative hasn’t hooked you.
What we’re seeing with storytelling in VR will grow. There’s going to be more ways to experience games other than just a linear game. So there’s gonna be a lot more interactivity. A thing that I’m trying to focus on is co-creation, just like Gravity Sketch is working on, is trying to build software where we go in and our entertainment is being in the space together, and creating in that space rather than consuming, is an entertainment in itself. I think there will be a lot more of that.
VR is a transitory term. Immersive technologies, or immersive realities, exist as a term because “VR” might not be here in a few years. When you get to the point where we’re both in this room, and we both have glasses on, and we want to watch a football game and it’s there on the floor, or we both want to design a game, and we both work on PSVR and we want to design a game with software like Dreams, and we’re making the game around us, that’s where it gets exciting, because you’re interacting with the story. It’s all gonna be story-driven, it’s all gonna be based around a character and a story and a development arc for that character.
I’m odd because I’m an artist who doesn’t really have a story to tell. I’m a designer and a modeler, and I would like to help you make your story, but I don’t have a story to tell. I don’t have a long narrative behind all the creatures I design. One of my kids is just a story person. He’s a good designer already, but he has a story behind everything. The best of these artists become filmmakers, but what will they become in the future? VR filmmakers? Content creators? It’s above my pay grade to know where that’s going.
Even if you don’t feel you have a story to tell, what does it feel like to see things you’ve created come alive on the screen?
It’s quite strange really, because I don’t have much to do with the thing once I’m done. I think we’ve worked on three Netflix shows this year and I probably won’t watch any of them. I kind of fall out of love with the thing once I’ve worked away from it.
We did a Sainsbury’s commercial. About 80 people worked on it, with loads of companies involved. It was all stop-motion, it was all hand-crafted, with 3D printing. I have a passion for that, because it’s very creative. That’s the kind of stuff I love.
I don’t really care about the ego, about having my name on a list. I just care about working with really cool, talented people, and then coming out with a good product at the end. I don’t even have Sky, so I don’t see all the stuff we make. I’m more interested in whether it looks cool at the point it leaves me and my team.
If you could give three top tips to any designers trying to make it, what would they be?
The biggest one is, don’t be a dick. The people who get more work are the people who are nice. That doesn’t mean you’re not good at critiquing, you must challenge and you must push. If you’re a bully, or you’re not particularly nice, no one will hire you.
I always tell young people just be nice. If you gotta give a hard message, just understand what that message can do to a person. I art direct people all the time and it can be quite crushing. You have to learn how to say it. If you don’t care, and you don’t have enough emotional intelligence, then you won’t get people to come with you on your journey.
Secondly, core skills are important. Learn the basics first. Whatever skillset you’re going into, get those nailed. Find your basics for your industry and just make sure you don’t get caught out not knowing those basics.
And lastly just enjoy it. I see so many stressed out artists. You’ve gotta find a way for you and your relationships to enjoy what you’re doing. There’s no point in rushing to the end to find out you didn’t enjoy it. So just find a way to enjoy it along the way.